Five candidates are vying for two seats on the Montana Supreme Court currently held by incumbent justices Jim Rice and Ingrid Gustafson.
The seat held by Rice, the court’s longest-serving member with 20 years on the bench, is being sought by Bill D’Alton, a Billings attorney. D’Alton filed his registration on Sunday, a day before the March 14 candidate filing deadline.
Gustafson, who has sat on the court since 2017, is squaring off against two opponents. Helena judge Michael McMahon declared his candidacy in early March after five years on the district court that serves Lewis and Clark and Broadwater counties. Helena attorney James Brown, a current member of the state Public Service Commission, joined the race on Monday.
Supreme Court justices in Montana serve eight-year terms. As incumbents, both Rice and Gustafson are considered to have notable advantages in their respective races. The last Montana Supreme Court justice to be unseated in an election was Charles Erdmann in 1996, who lost to Jim Regnier by about 8,000 votes.
While elections for the judicial branch are nonpartisan and typically generate only moderate voter turnout, the statewide Supreme Court races may turn out to be among the highest profile of any on the ballot this year, with Gustafson’s three-way primary drawing particular attention. The two candidates who receive the highest number of votes in the June primary will advance to the general election in November.
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Gustafson was appointed to the court by former Gov. Steve Bullock and was elected to retain the seat in 2018, a race in which she did not face any challengers. Before joining the Supreme Court, Gustafson served as chief judge of the 13th Judicial District in Yellowstone County, where she was first elected in 2005. She is widely recognized among Montana lawyers and judges for pursuing court reforms and judicial training for child abuse and neglect cases.
McMahon has a track record as a private defense attorney and experienced civil litigator licensed in Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota. He ran against and unseated Helena District Court Judge Deeann Cooney in 2016 and successfully retained that seat in 2018. As a member of the district court, McMahon handles criminal and civil cases as well as adult treatment cases within family court.
Brown, who was born in Dillon, was elected to the PSC in 2020. He runs the James Brown Law Office in Helena, where he litigates water law and public land issues and practices estate planning. Brown became well known in state political circles for representing American Tradition Partnership, a conservative political group found to have violated campaign finance laws in 2013. In what some political observers say was an atypical move for a Supreme Court race, Gov. Greg Gianforte, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and Attorney General Austin Knudsen, all Republicans, delivered a joint endorsement of Brown’s candidacy.
The race between Rice and D’Alton is expected to be less competitive leading up to the June primary, as both contenders will automatically proceed to the general election.
Rice was appointed to the Supreme Court in 2001 by former Gov. Judy Martz and won re-election in 2002. Before joining the court, he worked as an early-career public defender and later in private practice. He also served three terms as a state representative from East Helena. In his time on the court, Rice has mostly navigated elections unopposed. He was challenged in 2014 by Billings attorney David Herbert and won with nearly 80% of the vote.
D’Alton is a personal injury lawyer who’s practiced in Montana since 1995 and operated his own firm since 2008, where he represents plaintiffs and defendants in civil and criminal cases. He has not previously held or run for public office.
As with other campaigns for state office, candidates for the Supreme Court will file their first quarterly fundraising and expenditure reports in the coming weeks. The primary election will be held on June 7. The general election is Nov. 8.
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